Curiosities

The Last Train from Hiroshima

By posted at 10:01 pm on March 9, 2010 1

Henry Holt & Company stopped printing and selling Charles Pellegrino‘s The Last Train From Hiroshima last week, following allegations of fraudulent sources and fabrication in the work. The New York Times examines the debacle: “If book publishers are supposed to be the gatekeepers,” novelist and Studio 360 host Kurt Anderson asks, “tell me exactly what they’re closing the gate to.”

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One Response to “The Last Train from Hiroshima”

  1. Robin
    at 5:55 am on March 10, 2010

    The article raises an interesting issue. Traditional big publishing houses still want to carry the prestige of bringing out the best writers in both fiction and nonfiction. At the same time, these publishers are beset by the same show-me-the-quarterly-profits attitude as all large media businesses are nowadays, especially since most of the major publishers are part of larger media conglomerates. My experience has been that the big publishers in New York remain full of people who care about good writing and who do what they can to promote it. Yet the voices of these people are increasingly drowned out by the voices of others who are concerned more intensely with short-term profits. The big change is the shift in time frames: modern publishers want the quick win, the big instant success, more than they want to develop a stable of good mid-list writers who can develop their readership slowly over time. It’s the same thinking that dominates Hollywood, and we’re seeing the results: sloppy history and shoddy novels chosen not for their quality but for their immediate sales impact. (This is true both of genre writing and of non-genre writing — the same fast-food thinking is being applied across the board.) I can’t fault the publishers for doing this. They’re in the business to make money, after all. But if this is going to be their approach, then the rest of the literary world needs to stop looking to the major presses as a reliable source of good writing and start turning more seriously to other sources as well. Otherwise, we’ll all be caught in the process of lowered expectations in which the big houses are trying to gain our assent. They would like us to accept their definitions of what is and isn’t literature, and what is and isn’t good writing, even though their own view of those definitions is now determined almost entirely by short-term profitability. Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway, for instance, are long-term bestsellers that ended up being tremendously profitable through their steady sales over the years. Major New York publishers used to care more about long-term profitability, but they no longer have any concern about books that might accrue steady profits over time, since steady profits don’t really impress shareholders, who always want short-term profits to rise as dramatically as possible. In short, we shouldn’t go along too easily with the big houses’ efforts to shift the goalposts and to convince us that their increasing narrowness is actually an admirable process of intelligent, informed selection.

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